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Universities teach us a thing or two about BYOD

Students test the network

Students using MacBooks in a lecture hall

Our Regcast of 13 June, BYOD Beyond the Noise, focused on the infrastructure you build to accommodate the consumerisation of IT.

Trevor Kelly and Andy Cooper, our studio guests from HP, pointed out that universities are one group of institutions that know how to do BYOD (bring your own device) well.

In the past 10 years further education has acquired a BYOD problem in concentrated form: thousands of users with a variety of devices. A study of universities reported an average of 2.1 devices per user.

The users have a number of bandwidth-hungry applications – not least because they are also using the network to watch TV, play games and Skype their families on the other side of the world.

All together now

User density can be a problem, especially when 100 students in the same room are all streaming the same piece of video. The network also has to carry confidential personal and professional data.

Every July, one third of the users leave, then a new group arrives to replace them, often with the latest mobile devices and English as a second language. Plus, as Trevor Pott points out in the Regcast, they get more gizmos for Christmas. The first day of any term is fun if you are an admin.

Universities have embarked on a steep learning curve and it has led to some impressive networks, many shared between institutions and multiple sites.

Anyone who has used eduroam, for example, will know that wherever you are in the world, an eduroam wireless network will automatically authenticate you, using the login that you receive from your home institution, and automatically assign your level of access to the network you are visiting.

This is no small task: eduroam has 216 organisations offering operational services in the UK alone. But most of the time it just works.

Stretch the bandwidth

The most basic recommendation, our experts agreed in the Regcast, is simply to provide enough bandwidth. Many networks have underestimated the number of devices and capacity design. Blame the smartphone revolution or the proliferation of tablets, but that is the reality we live with.

This implies a modular approach to the capacity that is in place, but when you are adding access points, you will need to consider switch capacity and access point types. This now means using the 5GHz band (802.11an) where possible or at least in some parts of the network.

The latest devices and emerging standards such as 802.11ac mean that demand for 5GHz is on the rise. The benefit of using 5GHz is that devices are less likely to suffer from interference and there will be more capacity for users.

Management on campus networks requires a unified network. This offers a single view of the wired and WLAN network and of all devices attached and their traffic patterns.

The direct benefit is that administrators can prioritise certain traffic at certain times. There is also the side benefit that the admin will inevitably discover some surprising devices or bandwidth hogs. It also allows you to keep ahead of demand and spot emerging bottlenecks.

The result is a sudden bulge in demand at unexpected times

Some of those bottlenecks will be a by-product of success. In further education, more lectures are recorded, with the result that more students are streaming video. Then they discover that it helps them to study wherever they are, whether in the cafeteria or just talking in a corridor.

The result is a sudden bulge in demand in “quiet” areas, at unexpected times. If wired users observe that the wi-fi works well, they will not plug in their devices. Providing BYOD that works changes demand, and also the usage pattern.

For security, there is more than one approach. Some universities ask their students to enrol their devices through a certification process. Often this requires a hardware and software check, so authentication is for both the user and for the device.

On the safe side

HP works with some organisations that allow only enrolled devices to access the intranet, while others have guest access to the same network. Others rely on only a personal login but force password changes regularly. Many university BYOD networks also try to educate users as part of the signup process.

Also, admins in further education often offer free antivirus software to users and make its installation (or possession of an approved security software package) a condition of being allowed on the network.

Finally, BYOD may accelerate desktop or application virtualisation plans. In many high-value or restricted applications – for example, those streaming lecture videos – the application is provided in a secure browser session.

Low-power or obsolete devices can get access to the data and security policies can be automated: for example one user profile, one location, or certain hours of the day only.

One impact of university BYOD networks will become increasingly common. As graduates join the workplace, they will be nonplussed by the fact that they cannot connect their favourite kit and work in the way they like to work.

Constellation Research surveyed IT departments and user attitudes to BYOD. “For the next generation of knowledge workers, entering the workplace often feels like entering a computer science museum,” it concluded. ®

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